Murray Kempton

‘I’m still pretty’ – Muhammad Ali’s 1964 fight with Sonny Liston

‘I'm still pretty’ – Muhammad Ali's 1964 fight with Sonny Liston
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In February 1964, shortly before taking his new name, Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing's heavyweight champion. From our archive, here is Murray Kempton's piece on the fight.

Miami, Florida

There was this moment, just before the bell for the seventh round for the heavyweight championship of the world when Cassius Clay got up to go about his job. Then suddenly he thrust his arms straight up in the air in the signal boxers use to greet victory, and we laughed at his arrogance.

No man resigned to the laws of organised society who had seen Cassius Clay that morning could have believed that he would be on his feet three minutes that night. He was the loud kid in the bar and Sonny Liston was the bouncer we pay to throw loud kids out of bars. And yet he was still in the bar, and he had given the bouncer a job of work and that was enough to give him the right to taunt us all. We thought he was lifting his hands to make fun of us; and it was a delight to laugh with him and not at him. And then we looked at Sonny Liston and saw what until then only the fresh kid had seen: the dark tower had crumbled; Sonny Liston would not come out for the seventh, and Cassius Clay was champion of the world.

Cassius Clay is only twenty-two. The week before he would fight for the world's heavyweight championship, he made a joint appearance with the Beatles. They seemed five young men very much alike, gentle, sweet and gay. But the public Sonny Liston was always alone, a huge and brooding presence. His training programme opened with a film of his second destruction of Floyd Patterson, not so much a fight as the rabbling of a gallant gentleman by a mob of thugs. Then there was this terrible shadow made flesh: Sonny Liston working the light bag for nine straight minutes, not so much punching it as remorselessly masticating it, then Sonny Liston jumping rope for ten minutes, on his toes without excess of breath or strain of muscle, to the sound, over and over, of James Brown's 'Night Train,' which is the blues of James Rushing singing 'Evil Evil,' or Joe Turner shouting that it is your dollar now, but it's gonna be mine some sweet day. What was young and gentle was in those blues the Beatles have wrapped for presentation to other nice children; what was adult and evil seemed embodied pure in Sonny Liston. Could a Beatle engage a force this elemental?

He sat down after his dark ritual and tolerated the questions of the sports writers. We were looking at the big Negro who brings the little Negroes up to the North to pick our crops, at the Negro policemen Southern cities put on the force, with a licence to do whatever white policemen have always done to Negroes and an order never to bother a white man. We were looking at the face of time. A reporter asked the face if it thought the 7-1 odds against Cassius Clay were too high and Sonny Liston answered: 'I don't know; I'm not a bookmaker. I'm a fighter.’

And then, the morning he was to weigh in against Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay came in, pounding the cane which Malcolm X, the Black Muslim, had given him for spiritual sustenance and chanting ‘I was born for this day; I am the champ, he is a chump, I am the greatest.’ The eyes were empty, the voice hollow. His friend Ray Robinson, that picture of grace who is Clay's ideal, backed him against the wall and tried to quiet him and this hysterical child turned and shouted at Robinson, ‘I am a great performer; I am a great performer.’ A boy who thought of himself primarily as a performer was twelve hours away from the crisis of his life against a man who was only a fighter.

Malcolm X had said the night before that no white psychiatrist could read the mind of a Negro. That seemed nonsense then and the next day; we knew we were looking at a child in the condition of hysteria. And we knew just where we could place that particular psychosis in the history of the Negro in the United States.

The great legends of boxing are about managers who have taken incompetent fighters and by shouting their merits against all reason built them up for one big fight, at which they had disgraced themselves, never to be heard from again. Cassius Clay was the first Negro ever to bring an untested coloured fighter quite so far; he was an amateur Olympic champion with twenty professional fights, none impressive. He had clowned and blustered and shouted how great he was until he had earned his chance from a Sonny Liston who, if he did not respect him as an opponent, could recognise a propagandist skilled enough to cheat the public. Cassius Clay, then, was the first Negro to reach the status where he owned a piece of meat to exploit that way; but he was also the piece of meat. He had to fight the fight. Any sensible observer could understand that he had gone crazy from the thought.

Going away, one wished only for his dignity. He had no real history before that night and would have none thereafter if he could not summon dignity for it. Unlike any other manager before him, he could not pay himself off and send himself away; if he lay down the first time Liston hit him, he would be a joke and a clown all his life. There was no hope he could win; there was barely the hope that, carrying as he did the dignity of every other adolescent, he could go out like a gentleman.

An hour before the fight, Cassius Clay came out to stand and watch his brother Rudy in one of the preliminaries. He spoke no word and seemed to look, if those blank eyes could be said to look, not at the fighters, but at the lights above them. He had on his tropical dinner jacket with the ruffed shirt; there was the sudden wild notion that just before the main event, when the visitors were introduced; Cassius Clay would bounce into the ring, shout again that he was the greatest, and run down the steps and out of the arena and the sight of man for ever. His brother finished; the bystanders shouted their insults, unanswered; and his handlers pushed Clay's stiff, feet-dragging form towards the dressing room. He had seemed hysterical in the morning; now he seemed catatonic.

He came into the ring long before Liston and Jigged with the mechanical melancholy of a marathon dancer. He could not have slept in forty-eight hours. In the ring centre, those blank eyes looked over Liston's head. Clay went back to his corner, put his gumshield in clumsily, like an amateur, and shadow-boxed as though there was nothing before him but a mirror and then turned around, still catatonic. And then the bell rang and Cassius Clay came forward, a fighter the toughest man alive would have to come and get. Clay fought the first round as though without plan, slapping, and dodging and sneaking Punches, like a boy killing time in a pool-room. But he was fighting by his rhythm and not Liston's; second by slow second he was taking away the bouncer's dignity. We are so used to seeing Liston as the centre of any ground he takes that no one noticed Clay at first. Then Liston had him at the ropes, where fighters kill boxers, and Clay, like something in a dream of Liston's, slipped sideways from the left hook and under the right, just grazing the ropes and was away free, all in one motion, and cut Liston in the cheek. For the first time there was the suspicion that he might have learned his trade.

It was thereafter always a wonderful fight, although the mindset one brought to it made it impossible to recognise what was happening. In the sixth Clay was coming to Liston for the first time; even then, the response was not the hope that he was taking command, but the fear that he was growing rash.

He was a little ahead when Liston quit. The dark tower had seemed about to fall on him just once. Liston caught him in a corner early in the fifth and gnawed him in a fashion one cannot imagine a fighter sustaining more than four or five times in one night. Clay seemed hurt and walked back being stalked and offering only a left hand, listless and flabby, in Liston's face. One thought him done and asking mercy, and then that he was tapping Liston to ask him to be quiet and hive the greatest a chance to speak, and then one saw that Clay's legs were as close together as they had been when the round started and that he was unhurt and Liston just wasn't coming to him.

That is where it ended, although, as usual, we did not know it. Reason says that Sonny Liston's old bones gave out. But there is a part of us which believes in the fable that life can conquer death. And that part may always wonder whether Sonny Liston was not the prisoner of another and uglier fable, which was that he could dispose of any man the first time he caught him. Liston had caught Cassius Clay and thrown the execution switch and there was Cassius Clay as fresh as ever. And then there might have broken in Sonny Liston his sense of the rule which gives the bouncer his authority over the loudmouth and with it his heart.

‘I told ye,’ Cassius Clay cried out to all of us. ‘I told ye. I just played with him. I whipped him so-o bad and wasn't that good? And look at me; I'm still pretty.’

Of course. We were all resigned; and we were offended, in our resignation, to confront a child who boasted to us that he could work at a grown man's trade and still be pretty. And twelve hours before we had thought him demented and I had laughed at Malcolm X for saying that no white psychiatrist could read a Negro. An hour later, Cassius Clay came out dressed again in his dinner jacket; a friend stopped him and the heavyweight champion of the world smiled and said he would be available in the morning. For the first time any of us had seen him outside the ring all day, his eyes were wise and canny, like Ray Robinson's.